WALLA WALLA — Walla Walla County Sheriff John Turner has “cut loose” a 24-year veteran of the department who says he plans to run for election to Turner’s post in 2014.
Sgt. Tom Cooper recently told the Union-Bulletin that Turner relieved him of his duties at the Sheriff’s Office a week after Cooper filed pre-election paperwork with the Public Disclosure Commission on March 27.
Cooper was an outspoken critic of Turner and a supporter of Turner’s opponent, Bill White, in the last election in 2010. Cooper said he decided to run because he has concerns Turner “has put politics ahead of public safety.”
According to a letter Turner gave Cooper, who provided it to the Union-Bulletin, Turner’s decision to sideline Cooper was because there was no more “light duty” available at the Sheriff’s Office.
Cooper was placed on light-duty status in December 2012 due to a recurring knee injury, first reported in September.
“It’s occupational disease is what they call it,” Cooper said. “My doctor said more likely as not this occurred over the course of a career.”
Cooper expects the results of a Washington State Department of Labor and Industries examination later this month. Meanwhile, the injury had kept Cooper, formerly a patrol supervisor, confined to the office.
“I would help out wherever I could,” Cooper said, adding he also helped Detective Gary Bolster and Crime Analyst Technician Matt Stroe with their workload. “I was in there helping with that load a little.”
On April 3, however, Cooper received Turner’s letter telling him no light duty was available. It said Cooper would have to use paid sick leave and then other paid leave including personal holiday and compensatory time, starting at the end of his shift that day.
Cooper said when his paid leave time runs out he could file for unpaid Family Medical Leave Act time. But Turner’s decision effectively “cut me loose,” Cooper said, though he is still technically employed at the Sheriff’s Office.
Cooper said the notice was delivered a week after he filed pre-election papers and a day after he gave Turner word that Cooper’s doctor said the sergeant’s knee was improving, though not ready for full duty.
“I got an improved medical report the day before Turner released me,” Cooper said, explaining the report would allow him to take on more duties.
Cooper also said a recent Labor and Industries medical examination gave him hope he can rehabilitate his knee, though an official report of results is due later this month.
“I thought it gave me some pretty good tools and advice on how to move forward,” Cooper said. “I gave the sheriff all that information.”
Turner told the Union-Bulletin he would not discuss details of his decision because it is an ongoing personnel matter.
“I do not want to violate anyone’s ADA, HIPAA or rights to privacy,” he said Tuesday.
Turner’s letter, however, outlined his reasons for removing Cooper from light duty.
“On April 2, 2013, you provided Chief Deputy John King with a letter from (your doctor) setting forth continued restrictions on your regular duties as patrol Sergeant,” Turner wrote. “At this time, light duty work is no longer available. Moreover, the county’s ‘limited, temporary time period’ for light duty assignment has now been exceeded.”
Turner told the Union-Bulletin the county does have a policy outlining how long a deputy may be placed on light duty, but said he would have to look it up.
The policy in full, as provided by Lucy Schwallie, personnel manager for Walla Walla County, reads: “It is the policy of Walla Walla County to grant ‘light duty’ status to full-time employees who, because of illness and/or injury, are unable to perform standard regular duties, and if such work is available. Light duty shall only be granted for a limited, temporary time period and only so long as such work is available.”
Cooper said he wasn’t aware of any set time limit, citing past injuries both he and other deputies suffered that were accommodated over extended periods.
Former Walla Walla County Sheriff Mike Humphreys said in a phone interview that keeping experienced, trained deputies makes fiscal sense for a sheriff’s department.
“There’s guidelines you have to follow,” Humphreys said. “If there’s a chance the guy is going to come back, you keep ’em, because you have a lot of money invested.”
Humphreys, who was sheriff for 13 years, also characterized Cooper as a knowledgeable employee with experience in a wide variety of operations.
“There’s lots of different jobs you can do light duty,” Humphreys said.
Cooper said he believes light duty tasks dried up when he filed his pre-election paperwork, adding he believes Turner has a history of targeting certain employees, especially those who supported Bill White for sheriff during the last election.
“There were five different agencies in 18 months investigating our own people,” Cooper said, citing investigations into at least four employees — including White, who was under scrutiny for allegations of insubordination and dereliction of duty.
White is the only employee who was subject to one of those investigations and remains employed at the Sheriff’s Office. According to Jaime Goldberg, the Commissioned Deputy’s Association lawyer, the matter is still being contested and is scheduled for binding arbitration in June.
Turner, however, denied any retaliatory motivation against Cooper.
“He is under no discipline,” Turner said. “It’s purely (a health) issue he brought to us.”
Turner added he wasn’t aware Cooper was planning to run for office until Cooper told him, and Cooper’s position as the president and chief negotiator for the Commissioned Deputies Association won’t be affected.
The Sheriff’s Office labor negotiations with the Deputy’s Association are ongoing, according to Deputy Brad Ansorge, association vice president.
“(Cooper) is still able to participate in that,” Turner said.
Turner would not identify who would take over for Cooper as patrol supervisor. Sgt. Barry Blackman, who recently was replaced as chief deputy by King, was listed as one of the four current patrol supervisors.
Luke Hegdal can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8326.